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Judge Ellis’s Behavior Has Been Bad, But Doesn’t Tell Us Anything About the Outcome

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Dyspeptic 78-year-old reactionary T.S. Ellis has spent much of the Manafort trial making an excellent if inadvertent case for fixed non-renewable terms as opposed to life tenure for federal judges. This reached somewhere beyond self-parody yesterday:

Is this Excellent. News. For Paul Manafort and expensive ugly wardrobe? Nah. As Ken White argues, Ellis’s behavior 1)isn’t that uncommon — life tenure tends to produce insufferable blowhards, who knew — and 2)almost certainly doesn’t tell us much about the verdict:

But his actions are not unusual, and they don’t point to a likely outcome: Judicial intemperance is common and, for better or worse, dealing with it is part of a litigator’s job. Trial lawyers know that judicial grumbling is not a reliable predictor of results. It’s often just sound and fury signifying nothing.

It was, after all, only three months ago that Ellis, hearing Manafort’s motion to dismiss the charges against him, broadly criticized the prosecution, questioned Mueller’s power to bring the case and speculated that Mueller was only pursuing Manafort in order to coerce him to cooperate against Trump. Spectators rejoiced or despaired, depending on their bias; Trump himself praised Ellis’ insight and apparent support. A month later, Ellis issued a careful written ruling denying Manafort’s motion and accepting most of Mueller’s arguments. That’s not unusual; it’s routine.

In fact, judges often snipe more at the side they expect to win. Even a simple criminal trial requires a judge to make dozens of discretionary decisions like what evidence to admit or exclude, how long to let the parties take with witnesses and the scope of permissible argument. Judges routinely cut the weaker side all of the breaks, hoping to make a bulletproof record for appeal when that side loses. Riding prosecutors and limiting their evidence doesn’t necessarily signal that Ellis thinks they’re in the wrong — it may signal that he thinks they’re likely to convict Manafort, and he wants to make the result as clean and error-free as possible.

The evidence against Manafort seems overwhelming and I’d be shocked if this doesn’t end up with him facing serious jail time.

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